Writing Scenes in a story

With every newsletter we put out we include a list of writing tips. These usually include web sites and information I have picked up from various sources. They are always relevant and interesting but I was beginning to wonder if there was ever an end to the pithy advice people have for writers. Often the hints come from writers themselves who have done the hard yards and know that being a writer is far from glamourous. Alternatively, they come from observers who have studied the techniques of writing. Both points of view are valid. Any writer who does not heed this advice has sentenced him or herself to a long road of rejections and painful self-doubt. So both sources are valid.

However, I came across a website, which I have cited in our newsletter, that takes a different approach and it seemed to me one worth noting.

It focuses on writing the perfect scene.

We talk a lot about structuring a story so that it has an introduction, a middle which moves toward a crisis and a resolution. There are alternatives to this structure and I recommend ‘Story Structure’ by Victoria Lynn Schmidt as an excellent resource, which covers 11 master structures and 55 possible situations. I will write a blog on these another time.

However, before we look at the overall structure it is useful to think about the building blocks of a good story – the scene. In Story, Robert McKee breaks down the scenes into what he calls ‘miniature stories’ (p.233) with text and subtext and turning points. Randy Ingermanson’s approach is to take the structure to what I would call its cellular level. He calls this The Large Scale structure of the scene and the small-scale structure of the scene.

The Large Scale structure of a scene involves two possible approaches. Randy Ingermanson quotes his source, Dwight Swain, as breaking these down to two three - part patterns: scenes and sequels. Most of us are familiar with the first pattern:

A scene has

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

The alternative we may not be so familiar with but,(add comma) as I work with writers, I am discovering how important this is.

A sequel has

  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision

Now McKee would say that’s just what he calls ‘turning points’ and he would be right. However, by working with the concept of sequels, a writer begins to analyse his or her characters in a particular set up.

As he or she writes, the writer is asking, ‘now knowing what I know about this character, what would he or she do in this situation?’

This is getting down to a deeper level of characterisation. We, as writers, are defining our characters in a very precise way and by having that understanding we know that in a given situation this particular character will react to a situation or to another character in a specific way.

This is what separates believable characters from cardboard cut outs on the page. Beware of cardboard cut outs on a page. They are easy to create using sweeping descriptions like, “she was stunningly beautiful.” Yes, and what was she really like? “Well, she was scared of mice. That’s why she is standing on a chair in the middle of the kitchen.” And so on.

So let’s take a look at the three parts to the scene that Randy Ingermanson describes.


Goal: This is what your character wants at the beginning of the scene. I have heard this called the ‘object of desire.’ The goal must be clear and the character must be desperate to achieve it. My character on a chair is expected to dance the lead role in Swan Lake for an international dance company.

Conflict: there will be a series of obstacles. We know what obstacle our character faces.

Disaster: Failure to achieve the object of desire. Our dancer does not make it to dance the lead. What does this mean for her?

The Sequel

Often find early stage writers need to give this part more attention. They can describe a scene and they can put their characters in all sorts of dreadful situations. But what underlies the character and the scene?

Reaction: This is the emotional reaction to the situation. What is our dancer to do? How does she react to the disastrous consequences of missing the show? This will reveal her character and the reader will find out what kind of person this dancer really is.

Dilemma: The dilemma must set the character up to face a situation with no good choices. Our dancer, for example, could sabotage the stand-in dancer’s future performances in order to win future roles she misses because she failed to turn up. There are many more options.

Decision: How a character chooses between the options and, once she makes her decision, the next phase of the story begins again.

Follow these steps and the reader will want to follow your character through to the last page of your novel.

However, to really get the reader involved, you even need to go to a deeper level and that is defining a character’s motivation, which is external and objective like the mouse in my earlier example. Then we go deeper and describe the internal and subjective motivators such as her internal reaction to her missed role. This is the point where the reader learns why the character is so scared of mice and why that fear makes her decide to miss a very important performance.

Ingermanson describes three parts of the reaction: feeling, reflex and rational action/speech.








writing scenes


I found a very useful document on the Harlequin site that gives you a way to make your character believable. In short, you write down everything about the character including things like age, physical characteristics, family members and their information. Once you have described the character in such detail, they become a person with a full history. This works very well to cement the character in your mind even if you don't use any of the detailed information that you have established.